Urgent! We need to transform the denominations (Michael Moynagh)

Monday, 3 December, 2012

Michael MoynaghMichael Moynagh warns that we urgently need to transform the denominations.

In their book on missional innovation and entrepreneurship, The Permanent Revolution, Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim comment that the UK's Fresh Expressions movement has only marginally impacted the denominations. Fresh expressions have yet to be thoroughly owned by them.

This has already sparked an energetic online debate through Michael Volland's view piece but the question still needs to be asked, should the denominations being doing more to support fresh expressions of church - and if so, what?

Hirsch and Catchim may well be too pessimistic about the current situation. Some of the denominations have made substantial strides in embracing fresh expressions. The Methodist Church, for example, is writing fresh expressions into many of its policies, practices, standing orders and job descriptions. We know some dioceses are doing this too.

Even so, it is clear that we have a long way to go before fresh expressions are deeply embedded in the existing church. The situation is more dire than many realise. Unless the denominations act more urgently, the window of opportunity could soon close.

Even now, a big problem is that senior managers in the denominations don't have the time to push forward the mixed economy agenda - fresh and inherited expressions of church existing alongside each other in mutual support.

They are swamped by urgent maintenance questions ranging from employment and other policies, to new appointments, to initiating and managing re-organisation (read downsizing), to fire-fighting crises.

The problem is about to get a whole lot worse. On current trends, between 2015 and 2030 huge numbers will drop out of church as the baby-boom generation passes away. The need to manage contraction and to re-organise will increase exponentially. Senior managers will have even less time for encouraging fresh expressions.

Fortunately, as money and time become increasingly constrained, not all is lost. Here are some relatively 'easy wins' to advance the mixed economy.

  1. As posts become vacant, include 'encouraging fresh expressions' in the job description of the new holder. If this was done steadily and consistently for denominational and local-church appointments, a revolution would eventually occur in the direction of a denomination's ministry.
  2. Of course, those newly appointed would need support and advice on now to encourage fresh expressions. Each denomination or diocese should, therefore, appoint one person - in a new senior post - with the task of forming 'learning communities' among clergy and lay people who are encouraging or catalysing new types of church. Participants would meet three or four times a year to learn from each other's experiences, set goals and hold each other to account for seeking to achieve these goals. Church planters in Europe have found these communities to be very fruitful. 'Fresh Expressions Advisers', who convene such groups, should themselves be networked nationally (as is beginning to happen) so that they can learn good practice from one another.
  3. Fresh Expressions Advisers will need increasing financial support as the number of mixed-economy appointments grows. In the Church of England at least, this support should be funded from the rents of some of the clergy houses that are no longer needed due to the falling number of stipendiary ministers. Decline would fund growth.

These proposals could transform the denominations in the medium to long term. Where this has not already happened, they would require the switch of only one post in the denomination or diocese from maintaining inherited church to fresh expressions. Is this too big a price to pay?

Fresh expressions are not the only aspect of the church's mission, but they are playing an increasingly vital role.

Statistical evidence - gathered by Church Army's Sheffield Centre - from Canterbury, Leicester and Liverpool dioceses show that fresh expressions now represent approaching one fifth of the churches in those dioceses. A growing number have been around for more than five years.

Dioceses and denominations that intentionally support fresh expressions do see fruit. They reconnect with and serve parts of society that are outside the church's orbit. So why not take some relatively simple, but bold steps and clear a path for fresh expressions?

About the author: 

Michael Moynagh is the author of the recently-published Church for Every Context and Director of Research for the national Fresh Expressions team.


I really don’t think we can transform our present denominations, at least to a significant enough degree that will make the difference you are talking about here. I’m convinced that the Church will always be divided (Christian unity irretrievably broken down), and the only thing that matters from now on is whether we can express our divisions in missionally-significant ways. The problem with our present divisions/denominations is that they are about theology or worship-style or patterns of leadership/ministry – not about how best to work out the mission of God in the world. Paul and Barnabas had to go their separate ways, but it didn’t matter because they both just got on and spread the gospel in their different styles. Paul wasn’t doomed to missional failure because of this fall-out. The problem with our present denominations is that they are stuck in the issues of the past, issues that are no longer missionally significant, and there is no ‘transforming’ that. You have to disband these denominations, and regroup Christian people around particular visions of mission – none of which will be perfect, but at least the emerging entities will be about mission…

The recent Church of England debacle over women bishops shows that this (my) denomination is dysfunctionally diverse in terms of its mission. I believe in the established church in this country, but what we have at the moment is too tied up with its own problems to fulfil its particular mission. We are frightened to let the Church of England break up, but in the long run it would be the best thing. We need a narrower Church of England with a shared missional vision in relation to a broad spectrum of people in this country. That probably means liberal Catholic through to liberal evangelical, and shedding the Anglo-Catholic and conservative evangelical wings (they also have a mission, in partnership with others, reaching the kinds of people that ‘establishment’ will never reach, but their style doesn’t sit comfortably with being established church). Such a narrowing of the Church of England would open up new partnerships in the mission of being the established church, not least with the Methodists as previous talks over unity with them have been dogged by the present ‘wings’ of the Church of England.

Fresh Expressions would then become just one of a new range of different ways of holding and expressing a Christian faith today. We are trying so hard not to be another denomination (I speak as a Pioneer Minister). But maybe it would be better? If we did this great ‘regathering’ around visions for mission, we might end up with less ‘denominations’ than we have at present – i.e. more unified! In the recent debates, Christian unity was held as a gun to the head; we must stop falling for this one.

Not sure that you are right on either count David..

Firstly, unity and acceptance, despite difference on secondary issues, is a biblical principle not an optional extra - we are "all one in Christ Jesus".

Secondly it is the more conservative churches that are, statistically, maintaining, or even growing, congregations and the more liberal ones that are aging and dying out.

So, using your reckoning, maybe we should ditch the ultra-liberals who see the approval of the world as more important than taking a few more months to find a way to be "one in Christ"?

THAT would make it much easier to get a reasonable agreement to cater for the ultra-conservatives AND release stipends to employ people who are focussed on trying to convert people to Christianity and grow the Church (rather than focussing their energies on pushing the current society's political agenda onto the Church).

ps Alternatively, the CofE could perhaps reorganise nationally around two Houses of Bishops (that maintains the unity) which offer each network of Anglican churches with the same theological / ecclesiological vision the opportunity to relate to a Bishop, or Bishops, who share that vision?

I don't quite see how having TWO Houses of Bishops maintains unity...? Would THREE Houses of Bishops also maintain unity, then? Doesn't unity have to be about being ONE?

Of course, we are all called to be holy as God is holy. But we know it isn't going to happen this side of Glory. Same with unity, I think.

'all one in Christ'-does not mean all one in one church structure. 'one lord, one faith, one baptism' is not the same as one church. 'one church'-'one creed' was a Roman invention and aberration of the message of Christ. unity is always unity-in-diversity. over-reliance on hierarchical systems and bureaucracy as a means of control in trying to maintain the illusion of 'one church' are sapping the life out of the church--not liberalism. pentecostal and russian orthodox (conservative) churches are growing because they have resisted an over reliance on bureaucratic power --and have kept alive the spirit of the Gospel in communities of experience.

I agree that we are all called to be 'one in Christ', and that that's not about church structure. So allowing the CofE to break up and for structural denominational lines to be redrawn as a result does not compromise that deeper unity, surely. I think one of our biggest problems is that WITHIN our denominational structures we are deeply fractured, and that this is disabling us from working together to enact the mission of God better. Church structures that have a clear shared missional vision can sit light to bureaucracy and control -- simply because they don't need them. I think we need the great 'regathering' in order to create such structures.

Wow! Have just got onto the other discussion and see any further comment there may be a bit dated, so making small contribution here, which moves debate slightly away from C.of E. only. Thanks to Alan for raising whole issue, and to my good friend Mike for presenting the challenge afresh with some possible options. As the Church of Scotland's first Emerging Church Development Officer (working alongside Bishops Steve then Graham) I can confirm how difficult it is to bring innovation and that entrepreneurial spirit into any traditional organisation - especially Presbyterian! Nevertheless, it's worth plugging away. In Scotland, the pioneers on the ground have got it, and are simply being obedient to God's call - that's fine! Our main General Assembly approve some of the stuff year on year, but the real work that needs to be done is at our middle layer, our Presbyteries, where, as well as the "downsizing" exercise, there needs to be strategy and financing for a variety of "experiments". Alan, Mike and others are right to say - we just don't have time to mess about! We need to hear that prophetic voice. But I'm now working in Australia and can say that the Forge network and other networks have limited "bite" if they're not tied into major denominational structures, which, with good vision and appropriate financing, can support some of the work in missional communities we need to learn from. At the moment we've brought together the Uniting Church, the Anglicans, the Baptists and the Presbyterians - all supporting each other as we try to assist FX's experiments on the ground - and the agenda is beginning to impact denominational agendas and teaching in colleges and universities. Bless the prophets and the entrepreneurs - all over the world!

The phrase "Unity through Diversity" seems to me both relevant to the circumstances the church finds itself in and perhaps reflective of the character and work of the Holy Spirit. I confess to being a theological and doctrinal lightweight but that works for us on the ground here in France in a largely un-churched community where folk just need to be told about and encounter Jesus. When we get into any conversation where we are tempted to say "I am right and you are wrong " it will usually only end in tears and I prefer to say that maybe we all have part of the truth and can learn from each other. Our fellowship group, L'Oasis,was birthed in denominational rejection yet welcomed by Fresh Expressions in 2006. For six years it has felt as we we have been swimming up-stream against an attitude of suspicion, yet with God's guidance and encouragement, gradually making progress against the denominational flow. We are one of only two Fresh Expressions in Europe, but maybe, with the help of others might be on a point of institutional breakthrough.

For us Fx, is simply that, a gift from God demonstrating and encouraging us that God wants us to meet in his name with integrity in whatever way is relevant within the communities we have been placed. We need to be accountable and connected to the Body of Christ and as an anglican minister, that has been the struggle for us and the temptation to jump the denominational ship through frustration, hurt and sometimes anger, has been considerable......yet every time we reach that point God steps in and says NO and moves us on!

Tim Keller-leading missional practitioner in the USA is clear that state churches are problematic in terms of missional practice.

Dear Anonymous (whoever you are): He might just be influenced by the American context where there is no state church. So maybe he just doesn't see the up-sides? I'm not saying it is ideal. I am just saying that, in the mix of denominations/structures, having an established church holds particular missional advantages that we should be maximising.

I could write a whole book on this! First off, I think that Alan Hirsch and Mike Frost should stick to what they know, and the one thing that is absolutely certain is that neither of them have a track record in working within the inherited church and helping it to move forward. They have strengths and insights, but their base in what is essentially a congregational, independent, free-floating church context doesn't equip them for fully understanding either the strengths or the weaknesses of traditional denominations (you just need to mention them to any mainline Australian church leader, as I have done, and you'll get a lot more than you bargained for). But secondly, I would question the way we approach this issue of renewal and/or reimagination of the entire thing (which is what I think is required). I agree with David about that, but it won't be a managerial accommodation of fiddling around with bureaucracy and structures that will make a difference. I know this is going to sound preachy and pietistic, but in the end of the day it's a spiritual crisis that we face, a loss of true devotion, and a need for us to reimagine the only tradition that ultimately matters, which is what it means to be disciples of Jesus in this time and place, rather than in some other culture. To coin a not very original phrase, it's about Jesus, about continuity with him, about getting back to our roots, about rediscovering that eschatological urgency that permeates the Gospels, resisting the temptation to constantly rake over the past and instead focus on the future in the only way that matters by asking who now are we called to be, not for our own sake but for the sake of the world. And if that sounds like a novel idea, it just underlines how far we've wandered from where we should be.

Thank you John for being well informed and insightful as ever. The more I engage with the Jesus of the Gospels the more I realise how revolutionary He is and how I have spent a lot of the last 40+ years in 'ministry' 'playing church' and not living Jesus following disciplship. We need the Gopel of Jesus DNA coursing through our veins as individual followers and as Trintarian centred communities.

John: I absolutely agree that it's not about the structures, and that we need to recapture the spirit of the gospel in our churches. But there WILL be structures (and we have got them), and they can either facilitate things or get in the way. Our dysfunctional based-on-the-past structures are getting in the way, and they even get in the way of being the established church (and that structure even at its best has its weaknesses as well as its opportunities). Simply getting people within the present structures to focus more deeply on Jesus is not enough; the structures they are in keep pulling them away. They need the structures to break down and be re-formed in meaningful ways. The call/appeal of these long-standing structures is just too strong.

What a great debate - having spent a good few years pushing for new ways of being church I am encouraged by those who have embraced the 'fresh' but surprised by how little this has fundamentally changed things. Even after the recent census far many too are still unmoved. I honour all those who pioneer with little support. Maybe this is just the cost of carrying the call of Christ.

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